José Antonio Díaz de León, the last Franciscan missionary in Texas

Aranama Indians near La Bahía (Goliad), Texas, by Lino Sánchez y Tapia, 1829. Mission Espíritu Santo, which Father José Antonio Diaz de Leon sought to save for the Aranamas, is in the background.

Aranama Indians near La Bahía (Goliad), Texas, by Lino Sánchez y Tapia, 1829. Mission Espíritu Santo, which Father José Antonio Diaz de Leon sought to save for the Aranamas, is in the background.

Father José Antonio Díaz de León, the last Franciscan missionary in Texas, was an ardent defender of the Spanish mission system. In the 1820s, he waged a long campaign against secularization of the Texas missions. Brave and pious, Father Díaz de León came to a bloody end. Was he murdered or did he kill himself?

A Texas missionary

José Antonio Díaz de León was born in Mexico in late 1786 or early 1787. In 1811, he joined the Franciscan religious order. The following year, he began his theological studies at the College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Zacatecas. Among other things, the College administered the Spanish missions in Texas, which was then part of Mexico.

Ordained as a priest in 1815, Father Díaz de León became a missionary in the province of Nuevo Santander (present-day Tamaulipas). In 1817, he was put in charge of the mission of Nuestra Señora del Refugio, located in what is now Refugio, Texas.

The Spanish missions in Texas were intended to “civilize” Indians by gathering the tribes into settlements, converting them to Christianity, and teaching them crafts and farming. In addition to a church, a mission included housing, mills, shops and storage buildings, all within strong walls. Outside the walls lay mission-owned land, where crops were grown and the mission’s cattle, sheep and horses were pastured.

Missions were typically located near a Spanish presidio (fort) for protection from hostile Indians and other potential attackers. Towns, known as pueblos, grew up around successful missions and presidios. A census conducted by Father Díaz de León in 1818 found 164 people living at the Refugio pueblo.

In 1820, Father Díaz de León moved to Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo near San Antonio de Béxar (present-day San Antonio). Appointed administrator of all the Texas missions, he assumed spiritual care of the Indian and Spanish settlers at the four missions in the San Antonio area. Thus we find him protecting the residents of Mission Espada in Napoleon in America.

Secularization

Since the missions were a drain on the Spanish purse, the government’s aim was to secularize them once the Indians were civilized. The church was to be turned over to the local bishop and administered by “secular” clergy (priests not belonging to a religious order). The land was to be turned over to the Christianized Indians. Díaz de León and other local friars opposed secularization, arguing that the Indians were not sufficiently educated and would be taken advantage of. Thus the Texas missions were only partly secularized by 1821, when Mexico achieved its independence.

In 1823, the cash-strapped Mexican government ordered the “full and complete secularization” of the remaining missions. Father José Antonio Díaz de León surrendered the San Antonio missions to the Diocese of Monterrey in Nuevo León. However, he petitioned for the continuance of Mission Refugio, which had been abandoned due to attacks by Comanche Indians. He hoped that all of the Karankawa Indians, and those Aranama and Acoma Indians still needing instruction, might congregate at Mission Refugio until they could be civilized.

Díaz de León also petitioned for the distribution of the lands of Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga at La Bahía (present-day Goliad) to the 12 Aranama families still living there. This was opposed by the local council, which included Anglo-American colonists who had come under attack from the Indians displaced from Refugio. They wanted to distribute the valuable mission lands among themselves.

It is the unanimous opinion of the ayuntamiento that we shall soon see both general and particular damage as a result of these lands being in the hands of men who are shiftless and lazy and who give no hope of becoming useful to the nation unless they are subjected rigorously to law and punishment. (1)

While waiting for a decision, Díaz de León moved to Mission Espíritu Santo. He joined the Aranamas working in the fields and breaking wild horses. Though he was able to slow the process of secularization until 1829, Díaz de León failed to get the government to agree to either of his requests. He expressed his disappointment.

If the missions under our charge be given to the ordinary clergy, that of Refugio will be destroyed forever; and if God does not decree otherwise, all of our plans of missionary activity will fall to pieces. (2)

He made one last appeal for the exemption of Refugio. He argued that transferring it to the secular clergy would result in the Indians reverting to a state of savagery. That, too, failed. In February 1830, Father Díaz de León surrendered the last remaining missions. To his regret, the mission lands were made available to colonists, rather than to the Indians.

Murder or suicide?

Father José Antonio Díaz de León was assigned to a parish post at Nacogdoches. He accepted the job despite an anonymous warning to the College in Zacatecas about the danger of sending Catholic missionaries to Anglo settlements beyond the Colorado River. Upon arrival in Nacogdoches, Díaz de León found that the church was being used as military barracks. He rented a small house as a temporary chapel and started raising funds to build a new church and a school. Díaz de León made pastoral visits to Indians, Hispanics and Anglos alike. He spoke poor English, however, and had little success with the Anglo colonists. Although immigrants were required to become Roman Catholics (Father Díaz de León baptized Sam Houston in 1833), many retained their Protestant faith.

In 1834, Mexico passed a law of religious tolerance. This left the Protestant colonists free to practice their religion. The Protestant settlers in Nacogdoches began to campaign against their Franciscan priest. Father Díaz de León received several death threats. In October 1834, he was asked to officiate at a wedding for Samuel C. Hirams at Ace, 90 miles south of Nacogdoches. He went reluctantly, as he had heard that one or more persons had been hired to kill him. After performing the ceremony, Díaz de León asked for an escort to accompany him back to Nacogdoches. Hirams hired Philip Miller, a 34-year-old Kentuckian, to go with the priest.

The two men left Ace around noon on November 2. They spent the night at the home of Henry Bordon Prentiss. While there, Díaz de León wrote a farewell letter.

This Sunday, Nov. 2, 1834, I returned to this house [of Prentiss], and as it seems to me to be the last day of my life (God knows why), I address my weak and anguishing words to my beloved parishioners of Nacogdoches, bidding them from the bottom of my heart an earnest farewell, A Dios, A Dios. Let them commend me to His Majesty in the state that I am in; saluting them as I salute them, with my heart in my eyes and in my tears…. And let it be clear and notorious by this, that I beg, as I do, pardon from each and all the persons whom I have offended, and likewise, prostrate in spirit on the ground, I pardon, with all my heart, all and every person who has offended me, be the offense what it may. I press all, without exception, to my hearts as my beloved children in the charity of our Lord Jesus Christ…. Farewell, farewell, farewell; Amen, Amen, Amen. (3)

The next night Díaz de León and Miller camped near Big Sandy Creek. Miller spread a blanket over a pole to make a tent for the priest and then went to sleep. The next morning – November 4, 1834 – Miller woke about an hour and half before daylight. Feeling chilly, he went to the fire and saw Díaz de León’s body with blood trickling from its mouth. A pistol that Miller had obtained at Díaz de León’s request was lying near the body. According to the doctor who performed the autopsy:

We found a gun…shot in the left breast, between the fourth and fifth ribs, about two inches from the medial line of the breast bone; an inclination upward had been given to the ball or balls so that in entering the chest it fractured the fourth rib…and from its apparent direction we should think opened the largest artery of the body…as it emerges from the heart in a manner sufficient to cause instant death. (4)

Father Díaz de León was buried in what is now the Alabama-Coushatta Indian reservation in Polk County. The investigation into his death lasted for months. A court of inquiry manned by Anglo colonists concluded that the missionary had grown so frightened of being killed that he committed suicide. Hispanics, however, believed that José Antonio Díaz de León was assassinated. Catholic historians regard him as a martyred priest.

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  1. Paul H. Walters, “Secularization of the La Bahia Missions,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jan. 1951), p. 293.
  2. Ibid., p. 297.
  3. John Gilmary Shea, A History of the Catholic Church within the Limits of the United States, Vol. II (New York, 1890), pp. 712-713.
  4. Lorraine G. Bonney, The Big Thicket Guidebook: Exploring the Backroads and History of Southeast Texas (Denton, TX, 2011), p. 545.

10 commments on “José Antonio Díaz de León, the last Franciscan missionary in Texas”

  • John Adan says:

    Most likely killed. Suicides are not common in wartime (such as the 30 years 1969-1999 Irish war). On the other hand, all the Russians who fought for Hitler on the Western front committed suicide when sent back to Russia by the Allies in WW II. The son of Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, committed suicide with a pistol in New York, for lack of purpose. The Muslims do not commit suicide, except in combat, according to their culture. US service people do it to get away from stress, just like the drug users. The remedy is to give them useful missions, where they can achieve something positive. The need is to balance ambitions with the resources available and build the program step by step, in a meaningful fashion.

  • Bob says:

    Again, a very interesting and little known story from such an evocative time. Thank you.

  • Ann Marie Ackermann says:

    What an interesting post! If I understand it correctly, the wound track traveled up and to the right. And that raises the question: Was Father Diaz de Léon left-handed? It would be an awkward shot for the right hand.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I’m so glad you commented, Ann Marie. Given your expertise with historical crimes, I was hoping you could shed some light on this case. Unfortunately, I have not come across any reference as to whether the padre was left- or right-handed. I’d love to go into the Nacogdoches archives someday to read the depositions of the witnesses – there may be something there.

  • Joseph L Waner says:

    Suicide is a mortal sin in Catholicism. Difficult to believe that a Spanish Franciscan, known for their ardent faith, would commit that sin without being mentally ill. He may have been depressed, but there seems to be no real evidence of mental illness.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for this excellent point, Joseph. It helps to confirm my suspicion that Father Díaz de León was murdered.

  • Edgar Gifford says:

    What bothers me, and the story may not be complete, but Miller doesn’t claim to have heard the shot? Or is that what woke him? Also handwriting will tell you if the priest was left or right handed. If you have his apology or some other example of his writing…

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Miller said he awoke from a disturbance, which he later supposed was from the report of the pistol, although he claimed he did not actually consider the pistol until after he found the priest’s body: “As I was not accustomed to carry firearms, I at the moment did not think of the pistol…but first proceeded to examine for a large knife I had, I then thought of the pistol.” (Lorraine G. Bonney, The Big Thicket Guidebook, p. 545) Good idea about the handwriting. I don’t know whether Father Díaz de León’s farewell letter still survives. Maybe in the Nacogdoches archives. One would think there would be a sample of his writing in church records somewhere.

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If the missions under our charge be given to the ordinary clergy, that of Refugio will be destroyed forever; and if God does not decree otherwise, all of our plans of missionary activity will fall to pieces.

José Antonio Díaz de León